Instagram, Influencers & Healthy Body Image

Every day, we are bombarded with unrealistic standards that society has created for us, especially as women. There is a notion that everyone should look, act and be a certain way in order to be accepted. Every day, this underlying expectation and generalisation of beauty is continually reinforced by social media. It’s indoctrinating young girls around the world into believing we are not good enough.

I’m sure many people can relate to hitting that low point when we wish we could look like that girl on Instagram or dress the way influencers do online. I can’t stress enough how unhealthy this is for your mental health. Constant comparison to the unattainable online image eats away at your self-confidence.

Truth is, we’re never going to look like social media influencers. The only way anyone looks that way is by a combination of photoshop, edits and filters.

When you have a constant comparative narrative in your mind, the first thing it delves into is your body image. Before long, I was checking and trying all possible fad diets and miracle weight loss products to achieve the unachievable. Loading my body with countless supplements at all hours of the day and night did more harm than good. I ignored the warning signs to try and justify the desired effect of a so-called magic pill. I overlooked irregularity of my moods, periods, skin and immune system with only the end goal in mind. The new Instagram pop up, thanks to a simple algorithm, caused a spiral of addiction more serious than my teenage self could ever imagine. 

Too late in my life, I realised that there are many different forms of eating disorders. I never labelled myself as being bulimic or anorexic and could therefore convince myself that nothing was wrong. But, in hindsight, the way I was treating myself was not healthy. I was religiously monitoring what went into my body and eating far too little to fuel it. More than anything else, I had a constant feeling of guilt whenever I ate.

My mind was playing cruel tricks on my body and was totally in control of it. My type-A personality and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) added to a recipe for disaster. I was constantly hating myself for what I put into my body if it contained even a single calorie. Once I recognised the depression and anxiety this was spiralling me into, I had to make a change.

I did a lot of reading and listening to talks about my condition and had to train myself into believing something new…

The way I am is enough in its entirety.

There is not one thing in this world that should take that thought away from you. It becomes a lot easier when you can distinguish for yourself that the images you see online are edited a whole lot more than you realise. That’s the power of social media – people can be whoever they want to be – and unfortunately, it is often at the indirect expense of others.

I strongly feel that social media ‘influencers’ have a social responsibility towards changing this. Somewhere there are young girls looking at YOUR page, wishing so deeply that they were you or lived your social media life without realising that it’s completely glamourised. Why not encourage, empower and assist these young girls by showing real struggles and celebrating small successes. I lost a good few years by falling into this exact trap and have made it my mission to ensure others learn from my mistakes.

I still count my calories but am slowly feeling more comfortable. In fact, I eat double what I used to. I feel fitter and stronger than ever before. I’ve found informed and educated advice and built a network of support – they are the reason I am getting by. More than anything I am enjoying the process and celebrating my progress. I am proud of my body but even more proud of how far my mind has come to overcome the past.

I still don’t look like ‘that girl on Instagram’ but I sure as hell don’t want to anymore.

This is what I want young girls to realise. You are SO much more than the unrealistic standards society has forced upon us. You do you and be absolutely 100% yourself whilst doing it.

Myths about Mental Health

As a psychologist, I routinely hear many damaging myths about mental health. Some people hold myths to be truths, which leads them to suffer alone. Although this saddens me, I also have the advantage of hearing these myths and debunking them. Uncovering these false ideas can lead to more honest conversations and much-needed treatment.

Here are some of the most common myths patients share with me:

“I’m weak.”

Mental illness is not a weakness in character. We all experience a spectrum of emotions, everything from feeling highly emotional to feeling numb. It might be because of an accumulation of circumstances we’ve experienced in the past, our biological make up, or both. It is in fact a show of strength to express your emotions and seek help you need.

“I’m crazy.”

1 in 4 people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, and the rate is likely higher due to people’s fears of sharing their mental health concerns. Life is hard and we’re human, therefore we react.

“Other people don’t feel like this.”

How would you know this? We really have no idea of how other people react. Even the people we’re closest with don’t know how we’re really feeling unless we tell them. Why do we assume that everyone reacts the same way? We’re far too different to behave or feel the same in every situation.

“I have to hide my mental illness.”

Of course, this is your decision. Although if you decide to share with someone you trust, you may find that more people can relate with you than you think. They or someone they know may suffer from mental illness. The reality is, there are people who don’t understand and people who do. It’s important to figure out who your trusted loved ones are.

“Medication will turn me into a zombie.”

All medications have side effects. Everyone reacts differently to each medicine based on body chemistry. Some medications cause uncomfortable side effects when you first start taking them. The biggest question to ask yourself, your therapist and your doctor is whether the benefits outweigh the side effects.

“I don’t have enough faith in God. I just need to pray more.”

I know spiritual leaders who suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties. Does it mean they don’t have enough faith? Prayer can be powerful. However, have you been able to pray away all of the problems in your life? Do you pray rather than seek medical attention for a physical condition?

“Counseling is for white people.”

People of color tend to have a unique dynamic of stress specifically related to being people of color. Discrimination is real, people hold strange stereotypes about those they perceive as different and people of color are often targets of hate. Have you ever wondered if you didn’t get a job or a promotion because of your ethnicity? Chronic worries such as these accumulate and the build up can be tremendously stressful.

“My family will be upset if they know I’m sharing our private business.”

Every family has its family business. What you’re sharing is your business. You’re talking about how life affects you.

“It’s selfish to take care of myself.”

This is a cultural lie in much of the world, especially amongst girls and women. You deserve to care for yourself and express your desire to be well cared for. Also, you can’t help anyone if we’re sick ourselves.

“I don’t want to express myself in front of others.”

Everything we do is an opportunity to model behavior to others, especially those we care about the most. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to teach our children or partner that emotional expression is healthy?

“My boss will find out I’m talking to a therapist.”

Therapy is highly confidential and there are very few reasons this information would need to be revealed. The first couple of sessions of treatment are spent reviewing confidentiality so that you’re very clear on how it all works.

“Asking people if they are thinking about suicide will cause them to feel suicidal.”

Simply asking this question does not cause someone to become suicidal. In fact, asking about it may open up conversation and potentially save someone’s life. Most countries have a hotline to call if you need support. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call emergency services.

Fight these myths so that they don’t stand in the way of your wellness. Please share with someone who needs to hear the truth about psychological treatment.

Repairing the Mind-Body Connection After Trauma

 “Yoga can build back people’s ability to slow down in reacting to stress, to re-build the connection with their bodies, and engage in self-care.”
– Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director, Center on Poverty and Inequality

A recent report from Georgetown Law revealed a new avenue of trauma-informed treatment for adolescent girls. Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and current yoga teacher, co-authored the report alongside Thalia González, Associate Professor at Occidental College. The report explores the potential of somatic interventions to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of girls who have experienced trauma. Somatic interventions – meaning interventions that focus on the connection between the participant’s mind and body – are not new, but this research is showing new levels of promise for adolescent girls and young women.

“Trauma is part of many marginalized girls’ lives,” Epstein stated in a recent interview. “Across the board, girls have experienced every form of trauma studied at a higher rate than boys…yoga is one way to try to repair the mind-body connection.” Somatic interventions are made up of three core components: mindfulness, regulated breathing, and physical poses.

Epstein and González specify that, to be effective, somatic interventions targeting girls who have experienced trauma need to be trauma-informed, gender-responsive, and culturally competent. The teachers must pay attention to girls’ specific needs, provide options and choices, and acknowledge that different cultural experiences may affect a girl’s reaction to somatic interventions and the practices involved therein.

A stand-out participant named Rocsana exemplifies how somatic interventions, specifically yoga, can help girls heal. In a phone interview, she described how yoga taught her to be calm, to be more patient with her children, and how to think before she reacts. She practices yoga at home with her children, along with breathing and mindfulness exercises, and states that the techniques helped her leave an abusive relationship.

Now a yoga teacher herself in her own community, Rocsana aims to empower other girls through the methods she learned from the California-based Art of Yoga Project.

“The girls that I teach are young girls and they’re mostly Latina and African American. I want them to feel strong and powerful. I want them to feel good about themselves.”

A key element of somatic interventions is an appreciation of girls’ intersecting identities and individualized experiences. One of the report’s key recommendations reads, “Account for differences in types of trauma experienced by girls based on their intersectional identity.” Many holistic approaches to girl-centered programming acknowledge that girls’ experiences are directly related to the various, and often multiple, types of oppression and discrimination they face.

As Epstein describes, girls’ overlapping identities – be them race, gender, sexual identity, or others – affect how they experience trauma and how they are treated if they should choose to disclose or report their experience. “Women of color are responded to differently when they experience trauma…they are often ignored or blamed for their trauma.” Epstein underscores that girls of color are often seen as complicit in their trauma or are blamed for their experience.

Trauma-informed somatic interventions that acknowledge and address intersectionality allow girls to reclaim their agency, their sense of choice, and their ability to separate the trauma from their self-worth, dignity, and potential.

The use of somatic interventions signals an advanced appreciation for girls’ holistic wellbeing. As evinced by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, childhood trauma can lead to long-term mental and physical health effects. These include depression, suicidal tendencies, heart disease, and cancer.

Epstein and González see great potential in using somatic interventions to mitigate these effects and interrupt the inter-generational cycle of violence. “While there has not yet been a mainstream connection between the body and the mind and trauma and the body,” says González, “we see this report as a critical next step in advancing policies and practices aimed at providing system-involved girls with the foundation for a healthy and successful future.”

Perhaps this report will help those in the adolescent girl field make the connection and envision new, holistic ways to help girls improve their wellbeing.